How Gen Z harnessed the internet and destroyed the generation wars

Young people have always been the subject of criticism, but what happens when they can talk back?

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
7 min read

The internet is changing how generations see themselves.

Collin Buernerkemper/CNET

After working some unspecified foam into her hair, blow drying, and -- most importantly -- moving the part of her hair to the center of her head, TikToker @speedforcecosplay looks right into her camera and says, "Are you happy now? Now stop telling me I look like your mom."

If the issue of side parts versus middle parts -- or whether skinny jeans are cool --  means nothing to you, be warned. These two seemingly arbitrary style choices are the latest distillation of something that's been taking place since the beginning of time: generational warfare.

In one corner: Gen Z (those born from around 1997 to the early 2010s). In the other: millennials (those born from about 1981 to 1996). 

The jabs are coming from all directions. 

TikToker @ladygleep in July made a video where she said, "Prove me wrong, but I don't think there is a single person who looks better with a side part than they do a middle part." Her video has more than 2.3 million views and the audio has been used in more than 28,000 videos.

Another TikToker, @annabayhutchinson informs anyone watching that once upon a time, people used to call middle parts "butt crack parts." Meanwhile, @mollietrainor can't understand how to fit flared jeans into boots during winter. The hashtag #skinnyjeans has more than 126.4 million views. 

And this is only a fraction of the jousting. Millennials are obsessed with Harry Potter, won't stop saying "doggo" and have no idea that the laugh/cry emoji is lame. Gen Z has a fixation with cold brew coffee, says things like "no cap" and wants to revive the '90s. 

Whether anyone truly cares about any of these silly feuds isn't really the point. A younger generation is learning to define itself, and the internet is playing no small part in that. 


OK GUYS, WHAT ARE YOUR DEFINITIONS OF GEN Z AND #MILLENNIAL? Where all my #zillennials at? 🙌🏼 #genz #millennials #genzvsmillenial #zillennialtiktok

♬ original sound - Syd & Olivia

"The developmental task of young people is to figure out who they are," said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit that studies media technologies and their effects.

Gen Z, though, is arguably the first generation to have always had the internet. So while millennials and previous generations had to suffer through general critiques of everything they were doing wrong -- whether killing casual dining or doing the waltz -- Gen Z might be the best suited to finally talk back to its elders.

The kids were never all right

Traditionally (though not exclusively), older generations have the power and the platform to dissect the young. Very few 17-year-olds are writing cover stories for vaunted national magazines. 

In a 2013 article for The Atlantic, writer Elspeth Reeve showed that adults have been wringing their hands about kids for a very long time. In 1907, The Atlantic itself said marriages were crumbling because of the "latter-day cult of individualism." In 1990, Time magazine ran a cover story about Gen X with the cover line "twentysomething" followed by "Laid back, late blooming, or just lost?" Both feel like kin to more modern headlines about millennials deferring major life stages like marriage, homeownership and parenting because they'd rather live in their parents' basements and chase experiences. 

But in 2021, young people have more ways to shape their own narrative. Thanks to multiple social media platforms, there's nothing to stop that 17-year-old from going viral with a TikTok taking down the olds. 

"Instead of taking that top-down culture that we've had before where media producers were the primary creators, anyone can create a text and distribute it," said Bret Strauch, assistant professor in the English department at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, who also teaches about memes. "There's more agency over how more recent generations are able to portray themselves ... through social media."

It's agency that, early on, millennial teenagers simply didn't have. 

For most millennials, depending on their age, the social media they had access to during their younger years was MySpace or Facebook in its early days. Profile pages could be public, but those networks felt designed to address friends and family, said Paul Booth, a professor of media at DePaul University in Chicago. No one was finding viral success on MySpace for a hot take on a social issue -- or for a biting rebuttal to someone who wrote about terrible teens. 

But many members of Gen Z have grown up in a time when defining yourself online as part of a group is part of the norm. They've witnessed online culture wars, and those I spoke with were aware that millennials have taken a beating in the past. 

As far back as the early 2000s, Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd wrote about a concept called context collapse, which essentially spoke to the convergence of friends, family, co-workers and other segments of your social life ending up in one place -- like Facebook -- and the struggle with how to present yourself to all these groups at once. 

Booth suggested that perhaps for some Gen Zers, they're more used to broadcasting to everyone. If everything is always public, that influences how and what they post. If millennials were talking to their friends, Gen Z is talking to everyone. 

"It's about persona creation," Booth said, "And when you grow up online and you grow up with social media, that's how you express yourself."

What's in, what's out

"Internet or no Internet, every generation tries to differentiate itself from the previous, based on their cultural and social experiences," Rutledge said. 

Humans have the tendency to form groups. The clearer the boundaries are between those groups -- the more intense the "othering" is -- the more secure members feel in their own belonging.

While this tendency is practically as old as humanity itself, the internet has made it easier than ever to find a circle of people and block out whoever isn't in that circle. 

"Although it may seem funny to dis [skinny] leg pants or side parts, it creates a call to arms to jump on one side or another when it spreads across social media," Rutledge said, noting that there can be huge investments made in determining what's  "in" and what's "out," so that members who are "in" feel better. 


me: a millennial who rocks the middle part to hide my bald patch from the side part #genz #millennial #hairstyles #hair #BeautyEssentials #sidepart

♬ original sound - Nikolai Hauck

The risk here isn't so much TikTok feuds, but social media's ability to amplify a message that could boil down to tearing one group down to define yourself. And perhaps it's not the healthiest habit to grow up with. 

This worry is just a thin slice of a much larger issue that repeats itself in instances of race, class, political affiliation and geographic location, and in more trivial matters, like which COVID-19 vaccine you got. 

To underscore this, there's demographic data suggesting -- much to the chagrin of certain millennials and Gen Zers -- that the two groups may not be as opposed as they seem.

"The differences between millennials and Gen Z are not always that vast," said Monica Anderson, associate director at the Pew Research Center. When it comes to tech, for example, the two are pretty similar in terms of smartphone ownership and social media use.

Pew also found that when it comes to certain views on major societal issues, often just a couple of percentage points stand between millennials and Gen Z. For example, 54% of Gen Z and 56% of millennials say the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, compared with 48% of Gen Xers and 45% of boomers. Along those lines, two-thirds of both millennials and Gen Z believe Black people are treated less fairly than white people in the US, as compared with half of boomers. 

While there are other bigger gaps that exist, there might be less reason to get riled up than the internet might have you believe. And despite the memes about generational divide and references to geriatric millennials, not everyone is swept up in that internet-based tension. 

Lenore, 13, in Portland, Oregon, said she's aware of certain generational stereotypes. 

"I mean, we do like Hydro Flasks," she says of the water bottle brand popular among Gen Z. She's heard that millennials party all the time, and that anyone over 40 is clueless when it comes to technology, but she also reassures, "that's a blanket statement."

Lenore doesn't seem to view squabbles over hair as being the big forces shaping kids her age. She wakes up every morning to her Google News feed. It takes less than five minutes for both Black Lives Matter protests and climate change to come up. 

"With social media we get access to a lot of stuff. We've got a lot of technology, a lot more means of knowing about new things," she said. 

Carissa, 16, in Mechanicsville, Maryland, thinks that articles about Gen Z stereotypes -- how they don't have social skills, they don't go outside, they're all a bunch of snowflakes -- makes them a bit defensive. But then, as far as she can tell in her corner of the internet, they just moved on to bigger issues.

When it comes to side parts and skinny jeans, she didn't even know there was contention until her older sister asked her where she stood. 

One of Carissa's chief concerns these days is that all the vocalizing her generation has to do on the internet is just burning people out. 

"While social media does give us kind of a weapon to fight back ... we feel like we have to always be doing something, and at the same time it feels like we're doing nothing," she said. 

Meanwhile, not every millennial is in an existential crisis about their jeans, either. 

"Has it ever been this easy for a generation to get trolled by their youngers?" said Emily, 32 who's from Seattle. She largely sees the sniping as cyclical. "I think anyone who gets upset with children not liking their side part is obviously grappling with some insecurity that has nothing to do with Gen Z." 

Mostly, Emily thinks Gen Z is strong and progressive -- and will also one day be cringey in the eyes of younger folks.

Or as Anthony, 34, from Norwalk, Connecticut, put it: "If they thought I was cool, I'd have a huge problem as an adult in my 30s."